photo of Joan Eldredge, MSS '71

At home on the road

Joan Eldredge, MSS '71, has crisscrossed North America in her motor home for more than two decades. She sleeps when it's dark, wakes when the sun rises, and eats when she's hungry. She wears a watch only during the few weeks a year she devotes to "civilized things": visiting family and friends, keeping doctors' appointments, consulting her broker, and so on.

The rest of the year, with watch packed away, she wanders. Her home is on the road, in a 28-foot Bounder motor home. Her only map is an inner voice that tells her to observe, to surrender to nature, and to harbor no fear as she explores the sparsely settled back roads that beckon her.

Eldredge does not claim a town or city as home. She does not report to a job or even set an alarm clock. She describes her life as fluid and unscheduled. "When I get up in the morning, if I want to stay where I am, I stay. If I want to go someplace, I go. When you get away from the schedules, there's a peace and serenity. And then you can hear your own inner voice, the inner knowing of what is right for you."

Eldredge first hit the road in her early 40's after a tumultuous period when she was seeing her two children off to college, finalizing an unexpected divorce, and selling her house practically simultaneously. "Through all this turmoil, this little inner voice kept saying, 'Go to the land. Go to the land.' I thought, 'What the heck does that mean?' The more I heard it, the more insistent it felt."

So Eldredge loaded her car with camping supplies borrowed from friends and headed west. She had put her furniture in storage and planned to return to Pennsylvania in a few weeks.

At first, she was terrified. "I realized I had never been alone for any length of time," she says. "I'd lived with my nuclear family, had roommates in college, and was married in graduate school. Here I was in this deserted campground, living in a tiny little pup tent that couldn't be locked, all alone, saying, 'Who am I?' I was no longer a hands-on mother: My kids were starting their own lives. I was no longer a wife: My ex-husband had remarried. It was a real eye-opener. That first night, I just sat in the tent and cried, letting go of my old civilized life, facing a new existence full of the unknown."

Then, slowly, she experienced a "relaxation of the soul. There's something that happens when you give up the 'have tos' and the 'shoulds' and live organically. You leave the tension, stress, and chaos behind and are more open to experiencing the unexpected and adventurous alternatives that are present. You allow yourself to be more aware of the land, animals, birds, your own thoughts and feelings."

And so her brief solo camping trip turned into a way of life. Eventually Eldredge bought a small motor home, then a larger one, and year after year she sought the quiet, wild places of the continent. "It's a feeling of coming alive, of leaving the noise behind and going where it's silent, really silent," she says.

Her favorite silent places are landfills at dusk, especially in Canada, where black bears forage the trash heaps with cubs in tow, often just 10 feet from where she sets her chair.

"I become part of the scenery," she says. "We're all here to help each other. When you go with that intention, the animals feel it. Once you get to that point where you've left the stress, it's almost meditative, this life. And then it's as if you can hear the animals talking, almost. There's a knowingness in their eyes. So I go in freedom and in peacefulness, and the animals accept me as a friendly presence."

She recalls encounters with elks and coyotes. Herds of antelope in west Texas galloped next to her motor home as she cruised down the back roads. An alligator in Florida ate marshmallows out of a friend's hand. In South Dakota a buffalo poked his head in her car window to get a better look at her. "Afterwards I had to wash his slobber off me and my car. But what an experience being eyeball to eyeball with a huge buffalo. Now I know why the native Americans hold them sacred."

In 1998, a fierce hurricane destroyed the storage facility in the Florida Keys where Eldredge had kept 23 years' worth of sketchbooks, journals and poetry. "Gone. All of it," she says. "But that's nature. You can't plan it. You just have to take what comes."

That philosophy applies to the road as well. Eldredge's first flat tire indoctrinated her into the "rule of the road." Several truck drivers came to her aid, and when she tried to pay them, they refused, telling her: "We're helping you. Now you help the next person."

That was 1977, and there was no such thing as road rage. Although now the climate is "iffier," Eldredge says, "most of the time, all you have to do is be involved in trying to do something,"-fixing your engine, for example, or changing your oil- "and people will come and help you. That's how people are on the road." She still considers truckers some of her best friends.

Twenty-five years ago, Eldredge rarely encountered other single women on the road. Truckers and people in campgrounds were amazed when they discovered she was by herself. Now, there are many women like her, thanks to the constant learning the lifestyle offers. "Women want this type of freedom," she says. "It keeps your brain going. It pushes your boundaries. To go with the positive, to be adventuresome, to take myself to the edge of risk in order to live the lifestyle that I've chosen. I have told my children not to worry about me. If I should die in the process, I die a happy woman having lived a life full of contentment and choice."

Eldredge graduated with a BA from Wellesley, where she majored in political science and minored in art. She then received a master's degree at Harvard, married and had two children. There followed many years of political involvement on the local and county levels-though her family was always central-as she and her husband ran for various offices. Eldredge also was active in the peace and feminist movements and was a docent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

After getting a second master's at Bryn Mawr, she became the conference coordinator for Friends General Conference. The Quaker atmosphere of contemplation and silence appealed to her. Eldredge made time "to listen to her quiet voice within." Later, she studied at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, specializing in group work and individual therapy. "I lived in my motor home in the parking lot of the local Friends Meeting, down the street from the institute, vacating the premises every weekend when Meeting for Worship needed the parking spaces."

She ran her own psychotherapy practice and led support groups at the Media, Pennsylvania Women's Abuse Center. Shortly afterwards she became a full-time RVer.

"At first, I led free workshops in campgrounds and counseled couples who sought help." she says. "My fellow campers insisted on giving me homemade key lime pies, fish they had caught, outings on their sailboats and help when I needed it."

One of her earliest patients got her interested in the stock market, and Eldredge would stop at village libraries to read books and magazines to educate herself on the workings of Wall Street. "I was lucky to enter the market in the early 1980s. Without much money, I was able to parlay what I had into enough to allow me the freedom to continue on the road for the last 25 years."

Her favorite geographical area? "Wherever my feet are now. Wherever you are, if you take the time to stop and really look around you, there's something that's special."

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